Elizabeth I

Elizabeth’s birth was awaited with huge anticipation. Her father, Henry VIII, needed a male heir, and he was certain that, having cast-off his invalid marriage to his first wife, Katharine of Aragon, his second wife, Anne Boleyn, would provide him with one.

Queen Anne was equally confident. She had had an easy pregnancy and gave birth to Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace on the eve of the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. Despite initial disappointment over her sex, Henry and Anne were happy to have a healthy child.

Immediately after her christening, Elizabeth was proclaimed her father’s heir, setting aside the rights of her half-sister, Mary, and in the following year, 1534, Parliament passed an Act of Succession, which required everyone to swear to Elizabeth as the legitimate heir to the kingdom.

For the first two-and-a-half years of her life, Elizabeth, in the care of Lady Bryan, was petted and indulged. She saw her parents regularly, and they doted on her. But on 1 May 1536, her mother was arrested on charges of adultery, treason and incest, and executed on 19 May. In the Act of Succession that followed, Elizabeth was branded illegitimate, and removed from succession to the throne.

Elizabeth’s education was wide-ranging and comprehensive. She studied Latin, Greek, French, Italian history, philosophy and mathematics as well as the courtly accomplishments of music and dancing. Following her mother’s death, she spent little time with her father – although that was not unusual for the time. She usually joined the court at Christmas and Easter, but spent most of her time at Hatfield, Hanworth and Hertford Castle, sometimes with her half-brother, Edward, born in 1537, and often with her half-sister, Mary, who gave her frequent presents of clothes and money.

In 1543, Henry VIII married for a sixth time, and his new wife, Katherine Parr, had enormous influence over Elizabeth. Elizabeth attended the wedding, and from the time she was old enough – about 1545 – she lived in Queen Katherine’s household. Although Katherine had not had the level of education that Elizabeth had already received, she was an intelligent and mentally stimulating companion and Elizabeth thrived in her company.

Katherine was also moving towards a more Protestant stance on religion, although she was careful to conform to Henry’s essentially Catholic position outwardly. It seems likely that this influenced Elizabeth’s own position. At the age of eleven she translated ‘The Mirror of the Sinful Soul’, an evangelical work by Margaret of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre’, from French to English as a present for Katherine.

On the death of Henry VIII in January 1547, Elizabeth remained in her step-mother’s household. Under the Act of Succession of 1544, and her father’s will, Elizabeth was second in line to the throne, after Edward and Mary (should neither of them have children). She would be barred from inheriting if she married without the consent of the Council that Henry had appointed to rule during Edward’s minority.

Within weeks of Henry’s death, Katherine had remarried – to Sir Thomas Seymour, uncle of the new king. By the end of the year, Seymour was treating Elizabeth in a way that went beyond the teasing of an affectionate step-father, and began to look like sexual advances. Elizabeth, aged fourteen, was confused, flattered, and became embroiled in a dangerous game of flirtation. Her governess, Katherine Ashley, warned Queen Katherine, who tried to defuse the situation by joining in the romps, but, eventually the matter went too far, and the mortified and repentant Elizabeth was sent to another household.

Katherine Parr died in childbirth in September 1548. Seymour immediately put out feelers towards Elizabeth’s governess and treasurer to see if she would be amenable to a match between them. Even at fifteen, Elizabeth was too astute to commit herself, and was careful to do nothing that could savour of treason. Seymour was arrested and executed in March 1549, but despite repeated questioning and bullying, no evidence of treason could be found against Elizabeth.

King Edward’s Council, and the King himself, as he grew older, were becoming more Protestant in outlook. Unlike her half-sister, Elizabeth had no objections to the religious changes that were introduced – the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, which instituted an English, rather than a Latin service, but was still essentially Catholic, and then the more radical Book of Common Prayer of 1552, which, by the addition of the ‘black rubric’ as it was known, clearly denied the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

Elizabeth, keen to play down the scandal surrounding Seymour, presented herself as the ideal Protestant virgin – plainly dressed, carrying a prayer-book, rather than the banned rosary, and spending most of her time at her studies.

In July 1553, Elizabeth was summoned to court, to see the King, whom she knew to be very ill. She was told he was recovering and wanted to see his sisters. Elizabeth, either naturally suspicious, or tipped-off, pleaded sickness and stayed at home. Over the following weeks, there was an attempt to subvert the Act of Succession of 1544 and Henry VIII’s will by bypassing Mary and Elizabeth, and installing their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne.

Elizabeth did nothing. She waited for events to unfold. This strategy proved successful, and she continued to follow it – seldom making decisions until she was forced to. Mary triumphed, and Elizabeth met her to take part in the new queen’s jubilant entry into London. Initially, all seemed set fair. Mary acknowledged Elizabeth as her sister, and there was no immediate pressure to conform to Catholic practice that Mary reintroduced.

But Elizabeth’s position was soon threatened by Mary’s determination to marry. Any child would displace Elizabeth in the succession. To prevent Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain, and to replace the queen with Elizabeth, to be married to her Yorkist cousin, Edward Courtenay, was the purpose of a group of rebels, led by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Wyatt was defeated, but Elizabeth was suspected of involvement in the plot. The rebels admitted having written to her. Elizabeth was sent to the Tower of London - her pleas to see her sister refused. She was housed in pleasant apartments, not a dungeon, and had enough freedom to contact other friends imprisoned there, the Dudley brothers who were awaiting sentence following the Lady Jane Grey affair.

Despite repeated questioning by members of the Privy Council, Elizabeth stoutly denied involvement in Wyatt’s rebellion. Wyatt himself exonerated her on the scaffold and the Queen, although suspicious, would not act against her sister without solid proof. Elizabeth was released from the Tower and sent to house arrest at Woodstock, the old hunting royal hunting lodge in Oxfordshire.

Eventually, the restrictions on her were relaxed, and Elizabeth was permitted to return to court. Papal Supremacy had been restored, the old heresy laws re-implemented, and everyone was obliged to conform to traditional Catholic practice. Elizabeth did so, but managed to indicate that she was not convinced – having coughing fits or stomach-aches at inopportune moments during the Mass.

Mary’s suspicions of her sister were modified by the insistence of her husband, Philip of Spain, that Elizabeth be treated well. Philip, perhaps thinking it unlikely that Mary would have children, wanted to court his wife’s heir, because he would prefer a friend on the English throne, even if she were Protestant, to the alternative heir – Mary, Queen of Scots. The Queen of Scots, although Catholic, was likely to be Queen of France, too, and the Franco-Spanish rivalry mattered more to Philip at this time than religion.

In November 1558, Mary died, childless. Elizabeth was immediately proclaimed as queen. Her first actions were to appoint Lord Robert Dudley as her Master of Horse, and Sir William Cecil as her Secretary.

The issues that faced the new queen were religion, marriage and foreign relations – with Scotland, France and Spain.

Religion was dealt with first. Parliament was called, and Papal authority once again rejected. Elizabeth was named as Supreme Governor of the Church in England. Next, the form of worship was discussed. Elizabeth herself, with her new archbishop-elect, Matthew Parker, leant towards the form of the Book of Common Prayer of 1549. But many of the Catholic bishops had resigned and there was a new influx of more radical Protestants, who had returned from exile in Geneva, determined to influence Elizabeth.

By careful management, the Catholic majority in the Lords was circumvented and the Book of 1552 implemented, with the removal of the ‘black rubric’ at the Queen’s insistence. This would allow Catholics to conform to the law without excessive violation of their consciences. Many of the ceremonies and ornaments of the old faith were retained, including clerical vestments. Much to the Queen’s personal distaste, clergy were permitted to marry.

This religious settlement, which the radicals thought was just a staging post, was defended by Elizabeth to her dying day. There would be no further reform.

The next point was foreign relations. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis of January 1559 ended the interminable Italian Wars. England had lost Calais, and with his wife now dead, and Elizabeth not rushing into an alliance with him, Philip had little incentive to pursue its return vigorously. England was included in the peace, but for many years, Elizabeth hoped to regain French territory.

Scotland was also a problem. The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France had culminated in the marriage of Mary of Scotland to François of France. On Elizabeth’s accession, the sixteen-year-old Mary had been directed by her father-in-law, Henri II, to quarter the arms of England with her own – a sign that she was the rightful queen. Simultaneously, the Regent in Scotland, Marie of Guise, was in conflict with the Protestant Lords of the Congregation, who sought help from Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was in a quandary. She was being pushed by some of her ministers, particularly Cecil, to help the Scottish Lords, but did not want to undermine another sovereign. Eventually, she did give support in secret, and the Lords triumphed. The resulting Treaty of Greenwich, drawn up by the Lords and Cecil, acknowledged Elizabeth as Queen of England. In France, Queen Mary refused to ratify the treaty.

The next point was marriage. Whilst we look back and see her eventual non-marriage as a wise policy, it was probably not Elizabeth’s fixed intention at the time, and certainly everybody assumed that she ought to marry. They just could not agree on who her husband should be.

Her first suitor was her brother-in-law, Philip, keen to maintain the Anglo-Spanish alliance. Not choosing to quarrel, Elizabeth let him think she would consider it, and pretended to be offended when he married elsewhere, as part of the Treaty of Cateau- Cambrésis. Other possible suitors were Philip’s cousins, the sons of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand. There were the King of Sweden, and the younger sons of France, the brothers-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Over the next twenty-five years, Elizabeth considered marrying first one, then another, of these men but nothing was ever decided. On a personal level, she was deeply enamoured of Robert Dudley, but he was not only the son of an executed traitor, but was also already married. Their relationship caused scandal across Europe, intensified when Lady Dudley was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Elizabeth acted wisely, refusing to see Dudley until the matter had been investigated. He was exonerated, but Elizabeth could never marry him.

The 1560s progressed relatively smoothly after that, until in 1568, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had returned to her kingdom after the death of François, arrived in England as a fugitive. She was accused of murdering her second husband, suspected largely because she had married, either willingly or as a result of rape, the Earl of Bothwell, who most people believed to be the chief assassin.

Elizabeth was appalled. She needed to reconcile her duty to her cousin and to sovereigns everywhere by supporting Mary, but she did not want the Protestant Reformation undone in Scotland, nor did she wish to give support to a woman whom the majority of her subjects believed to be the rightful heir, and some thought should be queen already.

Mary was held in confinement whilst Elizabeth pondered her options. Within a year, a rebellion broke out. The Rising of the North was the last gasp of Catholic, feudal England. The Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland led a revolt with the aim of displacing Elizabeth with Mary and restoring the Mass.

The earls were defeated, but from that time, Elizabeth became less tolerant of Catholic dissent. The fines for not attending the Anglican service were raised from a nominal amount to sums that forced all but the richest to conform.

There were religious problems elsewhere too – the Netherlands, part of the inheritance of Philip of Spain, were in revolt – for a mixture of religious and political causes. Elizabeth was being called on to support fellow-Protestants. Despite the urging of her government, Elizabeth was reluctant to allow England to be involved – she did not wish to undermine Philip’s sovereignty, she was not in sympathy with the Calvinist religion of parts of the Netherlands, and, most importantly of all, she could not afford a war.

Throughout the 1570s and early 1580s, England gave limited support. The French were also involved, leading to Elizabeth’s last flirtation with marriage, as the Duke of Anjou, brother of the French King was asked by one of the many Netherlandish factions to lead them. If Elizabeth and Anjou married, that would give succour to the enemies of Spain.

Elizabeth flirted with the idea, and perhaps even thought she might go through with it, but in the end, she refused him, on the pretext that it would be impossible for him to be allowed to worship as a Catholic, even privately, in her kingdom.

Meanwhile, plots in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots continued to spring up – some of them certainly encouraged, if not instigated, by the agents provocateurs of Sir Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s most radically Protestant ministers, whose spy network reached into every corner of the kingdom.

Eventually, Mary was sent a letter which specifically referred to a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. She did not negate the plan in her response and this gave Walsingham and Lord Burghley (as Cecil had now become) the opportunity to have her tried for treason.

She was found guilty, but Elizabeth was extremely reluctant to have her executed. Eventually, the deed was done, and this, together with her support for his Netherlandish rebels, and the actions of English shipping in harassing the Spanish fleet, led Philip of Spain to declare open war.

In 1588, Philip sent an armada with the object of conquering England. It was defeated, through a combination of foul weather, and excellent English seamanship. However, the defeat in 1588 of the Spanish Armada, was not the end of the war, which ground on for the rest of Elizabeth’s reign.

This was the high-water mark of Elizabeth’s reign. Her image as Gloriana, defeating the enemy and safeguarding Protestant England was forever enshrined in the memory of the English. But at the time, as the 1590s unfolded, there were new problems – several poor harvests, the increasing clamour of the Puritans who felt the 1559 settlement was akin to popery, and the complaints about financial corruption amongst her ministers.

War opened on a new front – Ireland. There had been problems in Ireland throughout Elizabeth’s reign, and these were intensified by the religious issue. The native Irish remained Catholic, and much of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, used to ruling on behalf of the English crown, also stayed loyal to the old faith. Elizabeth’s Protestant Lieutenants – Sir Henry Sidney and the 1st Earl of Essex amongst others had difficulty managing the situation.

In 1594, a major rebellion (or fight for freedom, depending on the viewpoint) was led by the Earl of Tyrone, supported by Spain. Elizabeth sent her favourite, Robert, 2nd Earl of Essex to subdue it. She had misgivings about sending Essex – he was hot-headed and rash – and she proved right.

Essex failed to contain the revolt, and it became a bloody and brutal conflict, with long-term implications for relations between the islands. Essex left his post without permission and shortly after embroiled himself in a revolt which ended in his execution in 1601.

After the death of Essex, Elizabeth became exhausted, and depressed. She still refused to name an heir, although she had been corresponding for many years with James VI of Scotland. In early 1603, after the loss of an old friend, the Countess of Nottingham, Elizabeth sank into depression, refusing to eat or to go to bed. After two days of standing without pause, she sank to a pile of cushions on the floor, and died quietly.

Elizabeth’s legacy has been honoured for over four hundred years and she is regularly chosen as one of the most outstanding figures in English history.

Elizabeth I Armada Portrait
Elizabeth I, in what is known as the Armada Portrait